Defining National Affiliations for Amateur Baseball

Many amateur ballplayers have absolutely no idea what national affiliation means, and many others don’t even know if their league has it. Yet, about one-third of the 69 amateur adult baseball leagues in New England are affiliated nationally – 25 of them, to be exact.

Brian Warren and Jack Taylor of the Easton Huskies sport AABC patches on their sleeves, one of the prominent signs of a national affiliation.
Brian Warren and Jack Taylor of the Easton Huskies sport AABC patches on their sleeves, one of the prominent signs of a national affiliation.

Here’s how national affiliation works for an amateur baseball league.

For a fee, a local league can be part of a much larger national organization. Fees range from $26 per player, to $400 per team. And it is big business, as is apparent from the number of affiliated teams from coast to coast. The country’s big boys for adult leagues are the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MSBL) and National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF) – each with about 325 local affiliates, 3,200 teams and 45,000 members. The National Adult Baseball Association (NABA) also has more than 125 local affiliates, 1,200 teams and 25,000 members, while the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) Stan Musial division has 180 teams in the North Atlantic Region alone.

The benefits of national membership vary.

Before the Internet exploded a decade ago, the largest benefit of affiliation was often the ability of a new or no-name local league to be able to throw a national logo onto their brand. It gave them instant credibility as a serious and competitive league, assisted with recruitment, and provided access to resources such as sports equipment, fields or even umpires. Now that we’re in the digital age, the benefit of assistance with recognition isn’t worth as much, as leagues have the ability to easily promote themselves though online search, websites and social media.

Membership typically includes magazine subscriptions to the affiliate’s publication, such as Hardball (MSBL), Behind the Seams (NABF), and AABC Baseball. This gave small-time amateur players a chance to see themselves, teammates or friends in print, nationally. However, as a cost-saving measure, most of these magazines have gone digital, eliminating what was once a really neat player benefit. The digital magazines just don’t feel as special, at least in my opinion.

Many leagues also provide access to sponsor discounts, such as deals on sports equipment, travel services, phone access, and medical or auto insurance. But again, in the digital age, these deals are often readily available to the masses to anybody who can google a coupon code.

So what makes national affiliation so valuable to so many players and leagues, including 36% of those in New England? Camaraderie and competition in national tournaments. Plain and simple.

For the last 25 years, the south shore’s Cranberry Baseball League (CBL) was part of the AABC. In the April 2010 issue of Baseball Journal, I even wrote about several Cranberry League teams competing in the Stan Musial World Series. After a quarter century, the Cranberry has switched affiliations, picking up with the NABF. The NABF was established in 1914, and is the oldest continually operated national baseball organization in the country. They host over 50 regional tournaments, plus eight national championship tournaments, throughout the year. But AABC tourney’s gave the Cranberry League a run for their money for decades. So why did they switch? It had little to do with change of scenery, and more to do with keeping local competitiveness without losing the ability to play in national tournaments.

The president of the Cranberry League, Joe Paolucci, explains.

“We wanted to have a more meaningful regular season. Our regular season always had lasted just seven weeks, ending mid-July so we’d have time to play in the Stan Musial regionals. Our local playoffs would need to be cut short. If you lost one game, you were out. Players didn’t take our playoffs seriously. It was all about the tourney. Teams would save pitchers for the tourney, and not waste them in our playoffs.”

By moving to the NABF whose national tourney starts later, the Cranberry League had an opportunity to extend their season, plus make their playoffs more meaningful.

“This season, we will be able to have a longer regular season by one week, but also have a true playoff structure, with three best-of-3 rounds. Plus, since the NABF tourney is in Buffalo, NY instead of Houston, TX, it is affordable for more players and more teams to be able get there.”

I asked Paolucci about the impact of extending the season. With their season ending later, some college players may have trouble through the playoffs and into the tourney.

“Some kids may need to go back to school, but not many. Improving the local playoffs actually makes more kids want to play here, and with NABF, more kids have a chance to play in the tourney.”

According to Paolucci, the vote by Cranberry League officials to swap national affiliations was a unanimous decision. It also puts the CBL in a better position to compete with the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, a league that in its second year of showcasing college players, has just added a team in their backyard, right in Brockton.

“A more serious playoffs makes for a harder-fought regular season. And a more affordable and local tourney gives many more players an opportunity to extend their season, and want to play with us.”

Most interesting to me are the 64% of leagues that aren’t affiliated nationally. While they often site that the fee is an added expense, they are missing out on some truly remarkable travel experiences they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. Personally, I was fortunate enough to have played in the MSBL World Series in Phoenix, Arizona three times, from 2000 to 2002. My teammates from those 5-day trips still talk about those experiences to this day.

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